Slashed food and beverage budgets have been a fact of life for meeting planners in recent years, but just because you need to save money on meals doesn’t necessarily mean you have to skimp on menus.
In a session called “Menu Planning on a Tight Budget” at the 40th Annual Religious Conference Management Association’s World Conference and Exposition, presenter Chris Freeman, convention sales manager at Kansas City Catering, offered some money-saving tips. (Kansas City Catering is the food and beverage provider at the Kansas City Convention Center, where the meeting was held, January 24-27). Here’s a meal-by-meal look at how to save money on F&B.
Breakfast. Use smaller coffee cups (six or eight ounces) to cut down on consumption. And pay for coffee by consumption, not per person. For plated breakfasts, cut out the juice. “It’s a nice item to have, but not necessary.” Instead, find out if you can get free pitchers of ice water on each table.
If you choose a continental breakfast, keep it simple. Don’t worry about the “wow,” just give them something to fill them up and get them going. If the group prefers plated or buffet breakfasts, check your options to see which is least expensive.
Morning breaks. Use smaller cups for coffee, even smaller than at breakfast. If you used eight-ounce cups at breakfast, use six-ounce cups for breaks. “There’s nothing worse than seeing half-filled coffee cups at $90 per gallon,” said Freeman. If you offer bottled water or juice, put it in ice buckets. People are less likely to grab multiple bottles and stick them in their bags for later if they are dripping with ice water. For food, offer just one item—whether it’s a type of fruit or a granola bar—and nothing more. “And always pay on consumption.”
Lunch. Find out what type of luncheon is preferable for your group: buffet, plated, or boxed, and then get pricing and menu options for each. Boxed lunches can often be as expensive as buffets, so don’t assume it’s the cheapest.
Plated lunches can also be affordable, particularly if you offer a salad plate as the entree. You can get creative and offer a Southwest chicken salad or an Asian salad, for example. It’s healthful, something different, and it’s 20 percent to 30 percent less expensive than a typical plated lunch, Freeman said.
If you offer a more traditional plated lunch, skip either the salad appetizer or dessert—or both. “Do you really need desserts at lunch?” he asked. “Do you have dessert with lunch at home?” Eliminate it and save money, he said. Also, don’t offer coffee at lunch. Attendees will have coffee at breakfast and in breaks, no need to offer it at lunch.
And don’t scoff at chicken as a lunch entree for a plated setting or buffet. “This is where chicken gets a bad rap,” he said. It’s the least expensive entree and you can dress it up by offering it in creative new ways—barbecue or Asian, for example. Pork is comparably priced and is another good option for lunch, if it is appropriate for your audience, because it can also be served in a variety of ways. Beef is the most expensive and prices have been going up in recent months.
Instead of china, use disposable, biodegradable dishware and utensils. It’s not only green, it can save you $7 to $10 per person, he added.
Afternoon break. Similar to the morning break, it should be a one-item grab-and-go and should be billed by consumption. And don’t bother with coffee in the afternoon. “Some people say they want it, but it’s not used.” Offer soda and bottled water, and, again, put it in ice buckets.
Dinner. Of all the meals, this one is the last one you want to skimp on because it’s usually the most memorable meal of the conference. But there are still ways to save. You can go with a buffet, which is usually cheaper than a plated meal. You can also skip the salad, but it’s probably not a good idea to forgo the dessert at dinner.
Freeman also recommended considering a regional specialty, because attendees usually appreciate the local flavor (Southern-style, Cajun, etc.) and it can often be less expensive than a beef dish. Or ask the caterers about their own specialties. And check out what’s being made for other groups that are meeting in the venue at the same time. Some caterers will allow you to piggyback onto their menu at a savings.
Receptions. For hors d'oeuvres, use a server rather than offering them buffet-style. People tend to take only one item when served by wait staff but more at a buffet. Make enough so everyone gets three to five pieces, or five to seven if you want to offer a little more, but that should be it.
With alcohol, it all depends on the group. For most groups, it’s recommended to bill on consumption so that you pay for only what the attendees drink. If it’s a group with big drinkers, it may make more sense to go with a hosted bar, which usually carries a per-person cost. Many groups are wary of paying by consumption for alcohol or anything because it’s a variable, not a fixed cost, but Freeman says the vast majority of the time it’s less expensive.
You can save money with a hosted bar by just offering beer and wine and not liquor. Also, draft beer is cheaper than bottled beer.